Drinker identity and brand allegiance develop when adolescents are exposed to alcohol in the media and then share the impact with peers, thus proving the old advertising maxim “monkey see, monkey do.”

It becomes uncomfortable when someone under the legal drinking age already claims a favorite brand of booze. New research shows that young people are developing brand allegiance before they even turn 21, thanks to a host of social and media-related factors.

Two of the most important factors in developing brand identity are an adolescent’s peers, who can offer input on the best brands, and the media, which may not be targeting underage youth specifically, but still have a serious impact on an adolescent’s drinking choices.

“There is growing evidence that alcohol marketing is reaching adolescents and young adults, that they respond to it, and that their response is associated both with initiation of alcohol use and with progression to problem drinking,” said Dr. Auden C. McClure, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and lead author of the study. “Early onset of alcohol use is linked to alcohol dependence later in life, making both prevention and early intervention of risk behaviors important.”

There are several different, but equally important, factors at play. “It has long been known that peer drinking plays a role in adolescent drinking. Drinking is often a social event and adolescents tend to drink in groups,” said Dr. James Sargent, a professor of pediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and co-author of the study. “Our analysis suggests that peers also play a role in the development of a favorite alcohol brand, that is, adolescents who report having friends that drink are more likely to report having a favorite brand to drink.”

He adds, “This association is independent of their exposure to alcohol marketing. If the peer drinking path was illustrated in the diagram it would go from peer drinking to favorite brand to drink just like the path from movie alcohol exposure to favorite brand to drink.”

The researchers who conducted the study, entitled “Alcohol Marketing Receptivity, Marketing-speci?c Cognitions and Underage Binge Drinking,” explained the process of developing brand loyalty as a chain of events similar to the one Sargent described.

Once an adolescent is exposed to marketing, he or she will notice and then remember or recognize the marketing. Once the adolescent likes the marketing, he or she will participate in interactive marketing, such as buying alcohol-branded merchandise. The user will then communicate his or her preferences to friends, and finally, engage in consumer generated marketing.

“Social norms set by close friends and peers (and the larger social environment, such as the entertainment media and social networking) are arguably the strongest influence on adolescents, and these norms help shape cognitions, whether it be perceptions of alcohol in general or specific cognitions, such as drinker identity,” said Kristina M. Jackson, an associate professor in the department of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University.

And the alcohol marketers’ strategy is working. 32 percent of participants in the study reported having a favorite brand of alcohol, with women preferring Smirnoff, Budweiser, and Corona, and men choosing Budweiser, Smirnoff, and Coors. Similarly, 33 percent owned alcohol-branded merchandise, and 32 percent had engaged in binge drinking.

1,734 men and women from 15 to 20 years old were recruited for a national study of media and substance use in the U.S. Participants were asked about their exposure to different forms of alcohol marketing, through movies, television, the Internet, and alcohol-branded merchandise. These exposures were assessed in relation to binge drinking, along with mediators such as drinker identity, favorite brand, favorable alcohol expectancies, and alcohol norms.

Alcohol marketers are not entirely at fault, but they could practice better judgment in their advertising methods. “Tobacco companies gave up distributing branded merchandise (hats, t-shirts, etc. bearing brand logos) after it was shown that ownership of these items was linked with adolescent smoking. Alcohol companies should do the same given the compelling evidence to date that alcohol branded merchandise ownership leads to higher risk of binge drinking,” Sargent said. “Also, alcohol companies should stop placing their brands in movies marketed to youth.”

As the adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and everyone plays a part in curbing adolescent alcohol consumption. Adolescents look to their peers for guidance and influence, but the parental role can’t be underestimated. Every family deals with the dilemma of alcohol consumption in its own way, but being aware of the factors that influence underage drinking takes power away from marketers who may be using their skills for less-than-ethical purposes.

Sargent is no stranger to these findings, having also researched media and family predictors of alcohol use among other U.S. adolescents. He agreed that, as previously stated, family intervention can impact the onset of alcohol consumption in youth.

Adolescents who had never drunk alcohol were later assessed to see if and how media influences had initiated their drinking in this German study, also led by Sargent.

Alcohol use in adolescents has also been linked to much more serious consequences, including suicidality and depression, as this 2007 study shows.